FOXBORO – It was established long before this offseason that it’s not all sheetcake, rainbows and bowling trips at Gillette Stadium.
For God’s sake, the progenitor of the whole culture down here tried last February to convince 100,000 people that took the day off to scream, “No days off!!!” Even the players on the podium next to him that exultant day hesitated to co-sign that mess.
But this offseason, derision keeps getting poured on the “Patriot Way.” Why now?
Well, the Patriots came in second in the Super Bowl after Bill Belichick decided the team would make a go of it against the Eagles without one of their most relied-upon cornerbacks.
Then Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski decided to boycott team-sponsored offseason workouts. That decision was at least in part tied to the fact the atmosphere at work wore both men down to a nub in 2017.
So the crows are off the telephone wire and in the middle of the road pulling out Patriot entrails.
A veritable “Who’s That?” of experts have weighed in from Cassius Marsh all the way up to (down to? over to?) Brandon Brooks.
Doing one’s journalistic duty means carrying those quotes to Patriots players.
Did that Thursday.
Didn’t do it to sandblast the notion that the misery index is higher here than most places.
Didn’t do it to spackle over the absences of Brady and Gronkowski.
Did it to hear from guys who are part of the culture whether they take particular exception to drive-by critiques from people who either have never been here or couldn’t cut it.
They didn’t disappoint.
“I think now you look at a team that beats us in a Super Bowl and you get guys who are talking about us, so that's front page news,” said safety and captain Devin McCourty. “Then Cassius leaves and he played here so then that's another [one], but Cassius had a frustrating time here so I don't expect him to leave and say he had a great time.
“But I think if you ask any guy on this team, the fun we have comes from hanging out with each other,” McCourty added. “You guys are in the locker room. The relationships between the guys. A lot of our fun happens right in the locker room before we even come out here and have fun winning football games. Obviously, we work for a living. In this business, you have to win, so when you lose it's not fun. People get fired, you lose your job. That's not fun. I wouldn't believe anyone who only won half their games that they're having the best time of their life. I'm just not here for that.
“I think the value of how we interact and the relationships we have, no one else sees that. No one in Philly can say, 'No one there likes each other. They hate it.' You don't know that. I think you've even seen guys leave, we have great relationships with them, guys still talk. So to me, that's the fun part. And then obviously we come out here on Sunday and we win games. That's the best fun at the end of the week. I plan on continuing to do that no matter what's said."
Asked if he takes exception to the comments, McCourty said, “They're not even here. I think it'd be silly for us to feel bad and then go out and lose games because people say it's not fun here. That's childish. They say you're not having fun so now you shouldn't have fun. No. Go do what you've been doing. It's been working. We're all employed for the Patriots. We've won games, we were just in the Super Bowl last year so I wouldn't say that was the most awful season ever. We've got a couple guys here from Cleveland. They went 0-16. They told me that wasn't fun, so I'm gonna try to stay on this side of it.”
Donta Hightower, also a captain, has never tried to put a buff and shine on the difficulty of playing for this team.
“I mean, it’s not for everybody,” said Hightower. “It’s definitely harder than most places, but I mean, that’s part of it. A lot of guys know that when they come here.
“It’s not Bill’s job to make this fun and this atmosphere fun; it’s the guys around it. Every guy in that locker room, I love like a brother. We have fun, whether it’s out here struggling together – blood, sweat and tears – or we’re back in the locker room or we’re hanging out outside of football. So, there’s a time and place for everything, but we know whenever we walk through the building, it’s time to work.
Hightower committed to Alabama in November of 2007 right after Nick Saban got there. He’s been under the control of two of the most controlling coaches in football since he was 17. He’s now 28.
“Nick and Bill are like two peas in a pod…If you want to get better you don’t mind sacrificing a little bit…that stuff sucks sometimes,” he agreed. “At the end of the day when you know that you’ve done all that you can do and you go out on Sunday or Monday and you’re winning those games and you go back and you’re watching film and you see all of the extra work and all of the stuff that you sacrificed, that it was actually worth it.
“You’re not discrediting that at all,” he added. “I love being here. I loved being at Alabama. I love what I’m doing and I’m just looking forward to going further than that.”